By Ethan Sapienza
Riggan Thompson levitates in his decrepit dressing room, sporting nothing but a pair of tighty-whities. A gruff voice speaks to the aging, floating actor, asking, “How did we end up here? This place is horrible. Smells like balls.”
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” Alejandro González Ińáritu’s newest film, begins in this rather disorienting manner. Clear from the start, Riggan (Michael Keaton) may not be mental stable. With his Broadway debut fast approaching, he is forced to grapple with his unruly, fresh-out-of rehab daughter Sam (Emma Stone) and the volatile method actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton). This is not including balancing the relationships of his potentially pregnant girlfriend and co-star (Andrea Riseborough) and his ex-wife (Amy Ryan).
Much like the play it depicts, “Birdman” has extremely lofty undertakings. Not only does it focus on portraying an actor attempting to find himself, his family and his humility, embodied by his iconic former role as Birdman (certainly not a coincidence with Keaton’s Batman), but the film presents itself as one singular take, containing very few hidden cuts. All of it is pulled off magnificently.
Spearheaded by the phenomenal acting of Keaton, there is hardly a dull moment throughout the picture. Going from long treks through the dimly lit and treacherous hallways of the St. James Theater to following Riggan on one of his numerous, fantastical, egotistical escapades through the skies of New York, the film flows between comedy and sadness, horror and delight. Such fluidity is made possible by the combination of the film style and the acting. Trapped in the corridors of the theater, the viewer follows Riggan as he is woefully beaten down by a tirade from his daughter about inane attempts at unachievable relevancy.
Later, he battles with the lifeless Times theater critic. Her review of his play is already negative, as she has sincere disdain for the circus and comicality of Hollywood, which cannot touch the pristine reputation of New York Theater. Riggan can’t contain his anger, responding,“What happens in a person’s life that makes them become a critic?” An undoubtedly hilarious jest, it is followed up with a heartfelt plea for understanding the risks he’s taking, both as an actor and as a man.
The film’s strongest asset may be Riggan’s internal battle. He desperately tries to find the motivation he once had to act and reconcile with his past familial transgressions, both of which were ruined by his superhero success, along with ignoring the raspy voice of Birdman, which sounds strangely familiar to Christian Bale’s. Certainly second to this incredible performance is Norton’s, whose role is as praiseworthy as those from “American History X” and “The 25th Hour.” Though he achieves greatness on the stage, he finds himself lost in the real world, mirrored in his ability to have a sexual drive in the play though lack one outside of it. His ability to be hilariously repulsive in his self-obsession, as he admires himself naked in a mirror, is made all the more astounding when contrasted by his despondent honesty in how he has no guidance in making it through the real world.
In total, “Birdman” is triumphant and expansive. Its story is complex, containing both surface level entertainment and deeper meaning — its style is stunning, as the camera never rests, demanding perfect execution and rhythm from the actors — and the performances are superb, honest and beautiful. It is a must-see.
Ethan Sapienza is a staff writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.